When receiving this commission a couple of years ago, I was given the
opportunity to choose a book from a selection on offer. I spent a long while looking at them all but in the end chose this one as I have always been very taken by the woodcut prints of Gaylord Schanilec of Midnight Paper Sales. This publication contains nine wonderful colour wood engravings, plus I was additionally attracted by the format of the book – long and tall.
This book was published in 1991 and contains a selection of Walt
Whitman’s poems, chosen by M.Wynn Thomas, all of which originally
featured in Whitman’s 1865 publication “Drum-Taps”. As I found out the other day, although a couple of days off, the completion of this binding is quite appropriate timing as May 31st marked the birth of Walt Whitman, born in 1819. My first step was to find out more about Whitman so I started doing some research.
“Walt Whitman’s collection of poems Drum-Taps, first published in 1865,
offers an absolutely convincing and thoroughly compelling poetic
account of men at war. In this selection M. Wynn Thomas presents the
poems in a new and illuminating sequence.
Whitman himself explained how Drum-Taps expressed “the pending action of
this Time and Land we swim in, with all their large conflicting fluctuations of despair and hope, the shiftings, masses, and the whirl and deafening din…but it also has the blast of the trumpet…and then an undertone of sweetest comradeship and human love, threading its steady thread inside the chaos…”
My initial thoughts were to base the design on images from the American
Civil War, and I looked into imagery from around this time including
Civil War artists, army marching bands and the uniforms of the Union and
Confederate soldiers. Whilst doing this research I stumbled across a
website on Walt Whitman and began reading. As well as his poetry, the
website also contained notes from the diaries that he kept when
visiting the army hospitals during the war. On this website was a
collection of archived documents from the life of Whitman, including
images of draft poems and other notes written by his hand, which
inspired me to begin to think of a way to use these words as imagery
on the cover design.
With this is mind, I decided to combine one of Schanilec’s images from the book, with the words of Whitman, to create the cover design. The one I
chose was that of a night scene, with the light of the moon casting down onto a battlefield, which accompanied the poem, “Look Down Fair Moon”:
“Look down, fair moon, and bathe this scene;
Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods, on faces ghastly, swollen, purple;
On the dead, on their backs, with their arms toss’d wide,
Pour down your unstinted nimbus, sacred moon.”
The image inspired the choice of colours for the cover which was made up of scarf-jointed black and blue leather, with purple and yellow highlights.
I decided to combine this imagery with the words from various pieces I
found on the website, which were all written during the same period
as the poems within the book (in fact, one of the documents was a
hand-written document of the poem, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” which is
inside the text block). On the sample board, I laid out and embroidered words from the different documents on top of one another, with the
colours getting brighter as they passed under the light of the moon.
Having made the sample board, I decided to change the layout of the words
on the book design, instead embroidering them in concentric rings emanating from the moon as I felt it would be more clear this way. I also decided to graduate the colour from left to right as if the moon was casting down light on them, also keeping Whitman’s original “crossing-outs”, as in the archived documents.
After the leather had been scarf-jointed and the onlays glued and back-pared, it was prepared for the embroidery. The words were drawn out on tracing paper, which was then laid down in the correct place over the covering leather. Holes were pricked using a needle pricker, through the leather onto some foam.
The holes were visible when the tracing paper template was removed, therefore I was able to embroider the words using the holes as reference.
In order to keep track of the colour order of the threads, I made a temporary thread necklace to keep them all in place!
The words were embroidered using a variety of stitches, largely running stitch and whipping stitch, plus French knots for the dotting the i’s and the full stops! In order to make the leather more manageable whilst embroidering, I rolled and temporarily fixed the leather into a coil using bulldog clips.
The colours were graduated from left to right by whipping a different colour over the below running thread for a few stitches.
The doublures were designed to tie in with the cover design, with concentric circles to match the writing on the cover. These were created using a series of lines, some embroidered with the same colour threads as on the cover and some pierced out. These were designed to be like the reverberations on the skin of a drum whilst it is being played, therefore fitting in with the original publication title, whilst also complimenting the cover design.
Extra circles were cut out of the black paper doublures, and the lining paper underneath where these were to be stuck down was painted black where the lines fell.
The front and back doublures were laid out so that the circles met up visually when both covers were opened.
An exotic padauk wood box was made for the binding, designed to tie in with the endpapers. The colour of the wood was chosen to contrast with the blacks and blues, yet to match with the tones of other wood cut prints in the book.
The box lid was embroidered with the title of the book, and a hole cut into the lid through which a small section of the moon was visible.
The box was hinged at the opening and lined with felt.
For more information on this binding, plus a few more photographs, please go to my website.